Wanting to get what you do not want

by John Holbo on August 25, 2008

This is a follow-up to this post from Chris B., about “wanting not to get what you want”. I want to consider the converse (inverse, whatever it is) per my title. A paragraph from the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry for “Punishment”:

“To seek to be punished because one likes it, is pathological, a perversion of the normal response, which is to shun or endure one’s punishment as one might other pains, burdens, deprivations, and discomforts. (Only among the Raskolnikovs of the world is one’s deserved punishment welcomed as a penance.) To try to punish another without first establishing control over the would-be punishee is doomed to failure. But the power to punish — as distinct from merely inflicting harm on others – cannot be adventitious; it must be authoritative and institutionalized under the prevailing political regime.”

Has there been a Punisher comic about this? He confronts the Punishee, a villain who commits crimes only because he is perversely addicted, not just to pain, but specifically to being justly punished? Maybe his black bodysuit could feature a white, smiling face, wearing a black&white convict’s cap, sporting a tremendous shiner over one eye?

OK, gotta give the comics a rest sometimes, if only so that they can spring back refreshed. Back to the encyclopedia. Shouldn’t the passage be modified to read ‘only among the Raskolnikovs and Kants of the world …’ I realize I am hardly the first to note that Kant’s position on punishment is potentially perverse, at least on the surface. Namely, not punishing the guilty deprives them of an important right. So not punishing them is not acceptable because it would amount to an intolerable sort of punishment, i.e. cruel and unusual deprivation of rights.

I’m not proposing this as a ‘gotcha’ for the Kantians because, yes, the threat of perversity on the punishment front has been noted before. But what does Kant – do Kantians – actually say in response? (I’m just asking. I just don’t know what the respose is supposed to be.) You might try this: Kant will say that doing something ‘because you like it’ is morally irrelevant, ergo it is irrelevant in the punishment case. If you want to be punished because you like it, masochistically, that’s a perverse deformation of the proper rational attitude. But in the case of punishment it seems that there must be a positive dislike – actual desire not to receive the thing in question: otherwise it isn’t punishment. (If the punishee desires the punishment in question, or is indifferent to it, it isn’t punishment.) So it is not possible to say that, rationally, the agent’s likes and dislikes are morally irrelevant.

What do Kantians say about the fact that, evidently, wrong-doers have a moral duty to achieve a state of second-order desire that isn’t even self-evidently possible: wanting to get what you do not want?

Note that the problem can’t be solved by comparing it to ordinary means-ends cases: I want my body to get healthy, but don’t want the discomfort and tedium of a regular work-out. In that case, I would forego the pain if I could get the gain some other way. But the one who wants the pain and tedium of punishment, so that the soul gets healthier, cannot coherently want to forego the pain if the gain could be gotten some other way. (Because those would be ill-gotten gains!)

And has anyone written a dystopian fantasy about some sort of escape-proof prison for incorrigible Kantians. A strictly second-order hellhole. You can’t make them pay for their crimes, can’t punish them because that only gives them what they want. So you have to stick them in some nicey-nicey Skinnerian Walden II. Or, in the most extreme sort of maximum security arrangement, just let them go.

I realize that Nietzsche already asked this question, and answered it, in essay three of Genealogy of Morals: “What is the meaning of ascetic ideals?” But do we regard that answer as the last word on the subject, or don’t we?



bob mcmanus 08.25.08 at 7:19 am

Namely, not punishing the guilty deprives them of an important right.

Socrates chose the hemlock over exile, because (among other reasons) even in death Socrates would remain an Athenian.

Kant’s “right to be punished” I think relates to the right to be considered an autonomous responsible member of the community, even in criminality. We don’t punish children in the ways we punish adults, precisely because we don’t accept them as citizens, as equals. Or the mentally ill. etc.

Isn’t a desire to be punished a common component of civil disobedience, as a means to move marginalized/unrecognized causes and persons onto political awareness?


John Holbo 08.25.08 at 7:50 am

“Kant’s “right to be punished” I think relates to the right to be considered an autonomous responsible member of the community”

That is certainly right, bob. But exactly how you analyze the resulting desire to be punished is not so clear. Do you want what you don’t want?


abb1 08.25.08 at 7:59 am

I hear ’em corporate/political criminals cruelly deprived of proper punishment frequent S-M dominatrices. So it all works out fine in the end.


Sam C 08.25.08 at 10:32 am

I’m no Kantian, but I suspect that you’re begging the question against Kant by talking about a desire to be punished. Kant thinks that although desire is motivating, so is reason. The criminal may or may not desire to be punished, but she has reason to be, because punishment is appropriate to what she did, and if she’s rational, she’ll see that it is. The unpleasantness (and undesirability) of the punishment isn’t its point: it’s appropriate because it rebalances a world which has been put out of rational equilibrium by a crime. Whether this works is another matter. To me, it looks like the classic Kantian move of inventing a distinction to get out of trouble (see also: noumena/phenomena).


novakant 08.25.08 at 11:45 am

Do you want what you don’t want?

I don’t think this is so hard to understand.

It becomes clear by simply turning the question around and asking: what do you want? Suppressing, subordinating or postponing our immediate desires in favour of more remote, distant or abstract gratification is one of the most basic human principles. If this were not the case, society and culture would be impossible: nobody would ever get any work done and there wouldn’t be any meaningful human relationships. I grant, that in the case of punishment a lot of people might rather get away with it than be punished, but there are also a lot of people who turn themselves in, are relieved when they get caught or accept their punishment as just and as an opportunity for redemption.


Nick Valvo 08.25.08 at 12:13 pm

You all might be interested in one of the seminars by Jacques Lacan, on the “Ethics of Psychoanalysis” in which he makes precisely this kind of act “beyond the pleasure principle” in Freud’s terms, the ground (such as it is) of an ethics. It’s a pretty fascinating book.

In short, he tries to make an end run around this kind of paradox by removing the question of the good, which he says has been invalidated as an ethical category by psychoanalysis; his reasons are pretty close to those discussed in both of John’s pieces on this score. But where you’re reading Dostoevsky, he reads Antigone (following Hegel’s reading of the play in the Phenomenology). Consequently, the ethical stance he ends up approving is essentially tragic, focusing more on the loss of the economic thinking underwritten by the pleasure principle.


John Holbo 08.25.08 at 12:17 pm

“Suppressing, subordinating or postponing our immediate desires in favour of more remote, distant or abstract gratification is one of the most basic human principles.”

Yeah, but that’s more like the exercise case. My point is that we need something a little different. And I do admit that the idea of wanting what you don’t want makes intuitive sense. But the analysis is a bit puzzling.


Aaron Swartz 08.25.08 at 12:42 pm

Re the Punishee, this is covered in Watchmen, ch. 1, p. 26:

Juspeczyk: Hey, you remember that guy? The one who pretended to be a supervillain so he could get beaten up?
Dreiberg: Oh, you mean Captain Carnage. Ha ha ha! He was one for the books.
Juspeczyk: You’re telling me! I remember I caught him coming out of this Jewelers. I didn’t know what his racket was. I started hitting him and I think “Jeez! He’s breathin’ funny! Does he have Asthma?”
Dreiberg: He tried that with me, only I’d heard about him, so I just walked away. He followed me down the street … broad daylight, right? He’s saying “Punish me!” I’m saying “No! Get lost!”
Juspeczyk: Ha ha ha. What happened to him?
Dreiberg: Uh, well he pulled it on Rorschach and Roschach dropped him down an elevator shaft.


John Holbo 08.25.08 at 1:02 pm

Are there ANY problems in moral philosophy that Alan Moore hasn’t already addressed?


JK 08.25.08 at 1:23 pm

Hegel, too: ‘In so far as the punishment that [enforcement of rationality by the state] is seen as embodying the the criminal’s own right, the criminal is honoured as a rational being. He is denied this honour if the concept and criterion of his punishment are not derived from his own act; and he is denied it if he is regarded simply as a harmful animal which must be rendered harmless, or punished with a view to deterring or reforming him.’ (Element of the Philosphy of Right)

cf Gary Glitter and the few newspaper columnists who’ve rightly pointed out society needs to decide whether to treat child abusers as ‘mad or bad’ (although maybe not the most philososphically sharp phrasing).

Hegel finds it easier than Kant to deal with contradictions the position seems to raise. I think Hegel’s version works pretty well in the context of developing his system (i.e. so long as you’ve bought into the whole dialectics / Idea of right as concept actualising itself through history thing).


Picador 08.25.08 at 1:38 pm

To further add to the mix of motivators to action (“desire” and “reason” have been mentioned so far) is the even more circular neoclassical economic notion of “preferences”, defined as that which is manifested by the consequences (always understood to be foreseeable, since everyone has perfect information and unbounded reason) of what we choose to do (because everyone has unbounded self-control).

Does MacBeth desire to murder Duncan, or does he desire to be king and therefore must murder Duncan despite not desiring to murder him? What is his “preference” vis-a-vis murdering Duncan? In law, one might speak of volitional action, intent, purpose, foreseeable consequences, proximate cause, etc.

Civil disobedience was mentioned above as a case where one acts with the desire to be caught and punished to prove a political point; religious martyrdom is another. Presumably, what is desired here is for others to be aware of one’s punishment; if the punishment itself could be skipped while conveying to others that the punishment had actually occurred, surely this would be preferable to the martyr (unless other, masochistic urges are also implicated in his behavior).


matt 08.25.08 at 2:40 pm

Kant recognized that we can be divided in our motivations. This happens all the time: I’d really rather not tell the truth in this case, but I decide I had better. Is this doing what I want, or wanting to do what I don’t? The answer is that nothing in our grab-bag of ‘wants’ determines what we do (in so far as we are free). Rather, we will an action either by “incorporating” some ‘want ‘ (Kant called them “inclinations”) through reason into our will, or by giving rise through reason to a special sort of “incentive” for duty. The gap between desire and will is important. The accompanying metaphysics of freedom is rather controversial, but I don’t see anything paradoxical or perverse at all about the logic of motivation here.

BTW, the dismissive “only the Raskolnikovs” line is depressing. What must the novel, or nearly any novel, be like for such reader? “They struggle? What wierdos these human beings are!”


matt 08.25.08 at 3:04 pm

Another “perversity” of note: “Father, if you will, take this cup from me; but let not my will, but yours, be done.”


matt 08.25.08 at 3:16 pm

“matt” above (12, 13), may I ask a favor of you? I assume that’s your name so there’s nothing wrong in principle w/ you commenting under it, but I also comment here a lot under that (my real name, as well) name, and have been for a long time, and I don’t want our comments to be confused. So, would you mind commenting under a somewhat different name? I’d appreciate it.


Jerry 08.25.08 at 3:45 pm

Joke i heard once, cant remember where

Masochist: Hit me!
Sadist: No!


Righteous Bubba 08.25.08 at 3:47 pm

You have a URL and are unlikely to be misidentified, so rather than ask someone else to change, why not do the noble thing and change your own? I recommend “Dave”.


Michael Drake 08.25.08 at 3:53 pm

You don’t desire punishment except that you desire the sort of redemption and/or rehabilitation to which end punishment is (presumably) the only means. It’s a reflective, second-order desire, a little like “desiring” to go on a diet. (And if you began to desire Jenny Craig frozen meals at the first-order, it would be similarly perverse.)


Anderson 08.25.08 at 7:22 pm

I don’t see where it’s so out of the question for a wrongdoer to desire punishment in order to atone for his offense.

Don’t Roman Catholics seek out penance in order to feel relieved of their sins?

That is *not* the same thing as sinning in order to be punished, which I agree is perverse.


vivian 08.26.08 at 1:14 am

I think if you read actual case histories, you’ll find that people who do these “harm-seeking” or “punishment-seeking” behaviors aren’t doing what we think of as pleasure-seeking. It will be some kind of compulsion, where there might be relief when pain/humiliation finally happens, but it is still definitely experienced as painful, horrible, etc. Or it might be as a kind of temporary distraction from some internal state that is subjectively worse, like when abused kids cut themselves or turn anorexic. (In the latter cases it’s also about control, and while prison might be all-encompassing, it’s not going to support someone’s desire to express agency in secret.) It’s just not accurate to say that these people enjoy things others find punishing. They may crave it, but they don’t like it, or get pleasure from it. (Except maybe in comics and jokes.)

Seeking out punishment as a way to atone for sin, and spare a lifetime of conscience and an eternity of punishment is a rational choice (well, it’s expressed rationally). Seeking to avoid exile, shunning, etc. is also a rationally-expressible motivation. But those are also compatible with a society that wants to punish wrongdoing. Now the folks from the previous paragraph are compatible with things like retribution, maybe therapy/behavior modification, but possibly not compatible with deterrence.


Matt McIrvin 08.26.08 at 2:50 am

True fact: the question of whether people ever desire pain, or if they really desire something else that they get along with the pain, was the subject of the discussion by Cicero that got gradually corrupted into the typographical filler text “lorem ipsum dolor,” etc.


Thom Brooks 08.26.08 at 9:05 am

If I were a Kantian (and I am not), then why would I not want justice to be done?

For Kant, (legal) punishment becomes necessary when I make a mistake, violating not simply “law” but “right” itself: I should have known better than do what I did. Now that I have performed a wrongful action in violation of right, I may not enjoy the sensation of being punished. Then again, “justice” is not determined by the joyful physical sensations I may or may not receive from choosing to act in a particular way. Instead, justice is served in my being punished. For Kant, arguably, I have every reason to wish justice upheld even if it is inconvenient for me at time x


Qb 08.26.08 at 9:49 am

Cf. Plato’s Gorgias, especially the distinction between ‘wanting’ and ‘seeing fit.’ I also think it’s a little strange to assume that punishment is essentially, and not just incidentally (though perhaps reliably), painful.


harold 08.26.08 at 2:50 pm

Don’t people seek punishment so that they can be accepted again into the group? For our social species, exclusion can be the most unbearable state of all. Even hermits and martyrs seek the group approval of future generations.


J Thomas 08.26.08 at 2:57 pm

There’s an old joke that goes:

“Mao asked his disciples, ‘How can you get a cat to bite down on a hot pepper by his own will?”

Liu Shao Chi said, “Grab the cat, force its mouth open, and put the pepper in. Then hold the mouth closed.”

Mao said, “You are using force, that is not the answer.”

Deng Xaioping said, “Hide the pepper in a meat patty, and when the cat bites into the patty it will bite the pepper.”

Mao said, “You are using trickery, that is not the answer either.”

When none of his disciples could think of an answer, they asked Mao.

Mao said, “It is simple. You stick the hot pepper up the cat’s ass. He will gladly bite the pepper to remove it.”

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